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The road to unimaginable horror

Praveen Swami

There has rarely been a crime so predictable as that visited on Mumbai. It is part of a war that is still far from over.

"THE HINDU," wrote the Lashkar-e-Taiba's founder and spiritual guide Hafiz Mohammed Saeed in 1999, "is a mean enemy and the proper way to deal with him is the one adopted by our forefathers, who crushed them by force." Most of the few people who read Saeed's article dismissed it, correctly, as the ranting of a lunatic — and then made the error of dismissing his repeated promises to deliver maximum terror.

Judging by the breathless air with which much of the media has responded to Tuesday's carnage, it might appear that the serial bombing of Mumbai took India by surprise. In fact, there has rarely been a crime so predictable as the unimaginable horror visited on Mumbai: its perpetrators published their intention to execute massive terror strikes and made repeated efforts to do so in the months before one terror cell succeeded in penetrating the defences of India's covert services and police.

Investigators have so far said only that the seven explosive devices used in Mumbai were expertly fabricated, and that the execution of the bombings was near-flawless. Using electronic timers set to detonate at 6-15 p.m., each bomb is thought to have had an RDX core — the military-grade explosive recovered from a Lashkar cell discovered in Aurangabad in May, which was also used in an unsuccessful attack on an Ahmedabad-Mumbai train in February.

Yet, there's little doubt in which direction investigators' compasses are pointed. Union Home Minister Shivraj Patil said the attacks were executed by the same terror group that executed the July 11 grenade attacks in Srinagar, which claimed the lives of eight tourists. Mohammad Afzal Rather, a Baramulla resident whom bystanders grappled to the ground minutes after he threw one of those grenades, told police he was working for the Lashkar — leaving no doubt about just who Mr. Patil meant.

Could the bombings in Mumbai, as Mr. Patil appeared to suggest, have been carried out by a Jammu and Kashmir-linked terror cell? Evidence exists that the Lashkar has been attempting to establish those capabilities for some years. In December, the Intelligence Bureau and the Mumbai Police arrested National Conference-affiliated municipal councillor Arshad Badroo along with two other Jammu and Kashmir residents — the key figures, it turned out, in a Lashkar bombing operation targeting the city.

Badroo, along with Haji Mohammad Ramzan and Khurshid Ahmad Lone, had been despatched to Mumbai by the Lashkar's north Kashmir commander, an elusive 6 foot 6 inch Pakistani national known only by the aliases `Bilal' and `Salahuddin.' While Badroo had been tasked with picking up a Rs.300,000 payment for the Lashkar, Ramzan and Lone had been asked to transport electronic circuits and detonators to contacts in Mumbai — essential components for making a bomb that cannot be fabricated by amateurs.

All three men were arrested before they could make contact with their local Lashkar contact. Investigators were unable to establish, therefore, whether the explosives needed to build a device had been brought to Mumbai by separate Lashkar couriers, or if local operatives intended to plant the circuits and detonators in a bomb made from commercial chemicals. Information also emerged that the cell had sought to acquire fake Indian passports for top Kashmir-based operatives.

Evidence that `Bilal' had contacts in Mumbai is of some significance in the context of the serial bombings — not the least because of his demonstrated expertise in executing such attacks. As second-in-command to his predecessor, a Pakistani national still known only by the code-name `Abu Huzaifa,' Bilal had helped organise the serial bombings in New Delhi last year. While Abu Huzaifa was killed soon after the bombings, the pan-India networks he set up were, for the most part, inherited intact by Bilal.

Lashkar networks in Mumbai have evolved steadily since the end of the Kargil war. In August 1999, the Intelligence Bureau succeeded in breaking a pan-India network led by Lashkar operative Amir Khan, which had been tasked with recruiting cadre from among communities hit by communal violence. Despite this success, the Lashkar was still able to build offensive capabilities. In November 2000, police arrested three Lashkar cadre, all Pakistani nationals, who were planning to assassinate Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray.

By 2004, Bilal's unit was poised to execute even more ambitious operations targeting Mumbai. Shahid Ahmad, a Rawalpindi resident who had served with the Lashkar for several years, was tasked with organising a major attack against the Bombay Stock Exchange. He turned to Manzoor Ahmad Chilloo, a one-time Hizb-ul-Mujahideen member who had left Jammu and Kashmir to study medicine in Pune. Chilloo, in turn, turned to former members of the Students Islamic Movement of India for help.

A dramatic Intelligence Bureau operation — which also led to the controversial elimination of a woman Lashkar operative, Ishrat Jehan Raza, and her lover Javed Sheikh in an encounter in Ahmedabad — eventually led to the detection and exposure of the cell.

Few commentators paid attention, though, to the real lessons that emerged: despite the threat of an India-Pakistan war forcing a reduction of levels of violence within Jammu and Kashmir, the Lashkar was looking to take its jihad to a new level.

Last month, evidence emerged that the Lashkar continued to seek the resources needed for a major strike. Acting on information provided by the Intelligence Bureau, the Maharashtra Police arrested 11 members of a Lashkar cell that had shipped in an incredible 43 kilograms of explosives, along with assault rifles and grenades. Several had links to SIMI — just like Raza and Sheikh. Soon after, three Lashkar operatives were killed while attempting to storm the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh's office in Nagpur.

Alarms were ringing in the intelligence community. Sources have told The Hindu that the Intelligence Bureau provided at least half a dozen warnings that Mumbai could face a major strike, using explosives brought into Maharashtra at around the same time as the consignments that were interdicted. SIMI-linked cadre, the Intelligence Bureau knew, had also been trained for a major operation. However, the cell that carried out the terror strikes on Tuesday succeeded in slipping under its radar.

Organised crime networks

What has enabled the Lashkar to obtain the resources for running so many parallel cells? And where are the explosives used in recent attacks coming from? Some in the intelligence community believe the answer lies in the organisation that executed the 1993 serial bombings of Mumbai, the largest-ever terror strike in India. From a safehouse in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province, some say, mafioso Dawood Ibrahim's smuggling networks are being used again to pump in large flows of explosives.

Like the Maharashtra explosives, which are believed to have been landed by sea, smuggling networks along the Gujarat coast have also been central to recent Lashkar operations. In May, the Delhi Police shot dead Lashkar operative Mohammad Iqbal, a Bahawalpur resident who had operated in Jammu and Kashmir from 2002 to 2003. Iqbal, it turned out, had arranged for mafia-linked traffickers to smuggle nine kilograms of RDX, along with two assault rifles and a Thuraya satellite phone set, across the Bhuj border.

Part of this consignment was intended for use by Feroze Abdul Latif Ghaswala, a Mumbai automobile mechanic who had been tasked by the Lashkar with executing bombings in Maharashtra and Gujarat. While Ghaswala's cell was penetrated and broken by the Delhi Police, part of an earlier consignment of explosives sent through Gujarat was used in a February 19 bomb explosion on the railway platform in Ahmedabad that injured 25 people — the first time an RDX-based explosive was used in Gujarat.

Evidence exists that Dawood Ibrahim's mafia shares ideological affinities with Islamist terror groups. Much of the jihadi leadership is drawn from seminaries like the Jamia Islamia at Banori in Karachi. Some elements in the mafia, moreover, have links with the Tablighi Jamaat, a religious organisation that has considerable influence both amongst jihadi organisations and Pakistan's military. During Dawood Ibrahim's long stay in Karachi, these links flowered into an operational relationship.

But the mafia's role in terror strikes isn't restricted to shipping weapons. Dawood Ibrahim-affiliated gang-lord `Chhota' Shakeel helped ship Ahmedabad residents recruited by the Jaish-e-Mohammad through Dhaka in 2001. Mafia operative Javed Hamidullah Siddiqui, who was arrested in 2004, told Indian authorities that Shakeel had arranged to have the group flown from Dhaka to Karachi on fake passports. Another mafia operative, Rasool Khan `Party,' received the recruits in Pakistan.

Another Dawood Ibrahim lieutenant, Fahim Machmach, helped a separate group of terror recruits transit through Bangkok, including two Bangalore residents who identified themselves using the code-names `Iqbal' and `Sohail.' Machmach, interestingly, is alleged to have personally supervised a 2003 attempt on the lives of Bharatiya Janata Party leaders Bharat Banot and Ashok Bhat, using the services of a longstanding mafia hit man, Vikram Parmar, also known as Ali Mohammad Kanjari.

Painstaking investigation will be need before we learn just how the Mumbai bombings were planned and executed — acts of maximum terror intended to destroy what the author Suketu Mehta described as "Maximum City." Just who shipped in the weapons, who fabricated them, and whether the Lashkar's Jammu and Kashmir-based operatives had a role in organising the bombings could take weeks or months to establish. This much is clear though: what happened in Mumbai is part of war that is still far from its end.

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